HMY Iolaire — [Mr Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:36 pm on 12th December 2018.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 4:36 pm, 12th December 2018

It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate from Angus Brendan MacNeil—I hope I pronounced that right. It is a poignant reminder, given what else is happening around the Palace today, of the extraordinary events that took place 100 years ago and how we should reflect on them.

In the past month or so, I think we all paused to pay gratitude to what a nation did 100 years ago. An entire nation stepped forward to defend our values and our way of life beyond our shores. It began and confirmed a trend for our nation to step forward in defence of the international standard of liberty and to make our mark and help influence the world around us as a force for good. In reflecting on what happened 100 years ago, we can get lost in the sheer scale of the event. The third battle of Ypres took place on what is now the location of Tyne Cot cemetery. In a period of just 100 days, there were 500,000 casualties—so many individuals, each of them with a name and a family. Many of them did not return.

What happened 100 years ago on the other side of new year and its impact— particularly as it took place after the war itself—are so tragic. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising the matter so that we can reflect on the bravery of those returning home from service in the armed forces.

As the hon. Gentleman has touched on, His Majesty’s Yacht the Iolaire was so close to getting home those who had served. I will go through, as he has, some of the tragic events that took place on 1 January 1919. Just seven weeks after the end of the first world war, hundreds of servicemen from the highlands and islands of Scotland arrived on trains at the Kyle of Lochalsh. They were going home for the first new year of peace. HMY Iolaire set off expecting to arrive. In the early hours of new year’s day, as she approached Stornoway harbour, she foundered on the infamous rocks, the Beasts of Holm, within half a mile of Stornoway pier, where relatives were eagerly waiting to welcome their loved ones home from the war.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the numbers have now been updated. In all, 201 of the 284 men—mostly maritime reservists—onboard the Iolaire were lost. I join him and others in paying tribute to all those who tragically lost their lives that night. Of them, 174 were men from the Isle of Lewis who tragically drowned literally within sight of their home. A further seven were from the Isle of Harris. A further 18 crew and two passengers were also lost. The loss widowed 67 women, and at least 209 children lost their fathers. The loss of the ship is considered to be Britain’s worst peacetime disaster at sea since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the worst peacetime loss in British waters in the 20th century. No comparable event has fallen exclusively on one small population.

While a third of the bodies of those lost were never recovered, others were washed up on the shoreline and found by their families. The village of Leurbost, for example, with 51 houses, lost 32 men in the war with a further 11 lost on the Iolaire. There were 25 sets of brothers on board, and only one set survived without a loss. Although the first world war affected all communities, this was a devastating blow to the island community. The sailors had come through a global conflict, only to be washed up dead on their own island shore. There are so many deeply personal tragedies and stories to tell that I cannot recount them all.